Monday, October 22, 2012

Reality Is the Enemy: Romney's Foreign Policy

cross-posted from Dagblog

So tonight Mitt Romney is going to try to outflank President Obama on foreign policy. Romney doesn't know much about foreign policy, but both Romney and Obama represent long-standing traditions of American thought on international security. The President represents the practical tradition designed to guide policy by the party in office, whichever party that is. Romney speaks for the strand that is designed only for opposition figures. Romney's tradition was developed not to protect America from foreign enemies but to attack domestic political opponents, and it has no other genuine value.

A quick bit of history on where these two strands of thoughts come from:

After World War II, a bipartisan foreign policy consensus emerged in American politics, and there was never much daylight between the major parties or mainstream presidential candidates. (The previous major foreign policy debate, between the internationalists and the isolationists, was effectively closed by the Japanese in December 1941.) Both the Republicans and Democrats were Cold Warriors, dedicated to a policy of containing the Soviet Union. The containment policy stresses both syllables in "Cold War"; it treated the Soviets as an antagonist to be steadily opposed by every means possible except for an all-out military confrontation which would put our nation's survival at risk. Despite quibbles over details, Eisenhower and Stevenson, Kennedy and Nixon, Carter and Reagan all shared the same fundamental approach to foreign policy. The only apparent outlier to win a major-party nomination was George McGovern, and his outlier status was only apparent. (McGovern wanted to abandon one failed initiative, the Vietnam War, but not the underlying containment strategy.) Neither party was reliably more hawkish than the other. Sometimes (as in 1960) the Democrat ran as the slightly more hawkish candidate.

Starting in the 1950s, conservative intellectuals (as opposed to the Republican Party), began critiquing the bipartisan consensus as Not Tough Enough, arguing for more confrontation with the Soviets. The critique was simple: the United States should take a more aggressive stance (no matter how aggressive the existing stance). Every negotiation was a sign of weakness; trade sanctions were weak and threats of military action strong; threats of military action were weak and launching military attacks strong. If this sounds stupid, it is because it is sheerly intellectual, in the sense that the people peddling these ideas never had to worry about carrying them out, or even worry that other people might carry them out. These "ideas" (which are not really even ideas, but rhetorical stances) were cooked up in conservative magazines like the National Review, not in the Departments of State or Defense. They represent the worldview of William F. Buckley rather than Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon. (Because, really, why would you trust Dwight Eisenhower to win a global conflict with an enemy power when you could have William Buckley instead?) The point was not to come up with actual policies that would work. The point was to argue that the existing policies, no matter what they were, were "too soft."

This purely oppositional foreign-policy "vision" thrived in the Cold War because you could always count on the actual policy-makers using some reasonable restraint, keeping our aggression within some limits, since too much aggression would have provoked a catastrophic thermonuclear confrontation. Some options were simply off the table because they entailed an unacceptable risk (or near-certainty) of disaster. So the Buckleys of the world got a free ride. They could always stake out a theoretical position tougher than any responsible policy-maker would ever take, and they could be sure never to be called on their bluff. This strand of conservative foreign-policy thinking was always completely counter-factual, fixated on alternate histories. (Many such "conservatives" would even blame Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, for not trying to capture and occupy Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. The idea that America had missed an "opportunity" to go directly from fighting the Germans to a protracted land war with the Soviets suggests the level of realism we're talking about here. Some opportunity.)

After the Cold War ended, two things happened. One was that the broad realist consensus on foreign policy remained in place. George H. W. Bush, who had been part of the foreign-policy apparatus as CIA chief and who had just seen the containment policy pay off in an enormous jackpot, naturally stuck with what worked. Bill Clinton basically continued Bush's approach. Their handling of Iraq after the first Gulf War is a textbook illustration of containment in action, a combination of international sanctions, daily Air Force patrols over Iraqi airspace, selective airstrikes as needed, and pressure from international arms-inspection bodies. Why roll the dice on an invasion when you can slowly squeeze an adversary into submission? Specific Democrats and Republicans differed over details, but the general foreign-policy approach stayed the same.

The other thing that happened was that the oppositional, tougher-than-thou tradition that had flourished in conservative journals and think tanks forgot that it was an oppositional ideology. Although many of these armchair-general conservatives initially denounced glasnost and perestroika as Communist "tricks" to lull America into a false sense of security, they eventually recovered and began rewriting their private version of history to claim that neoconservative confrontation, rather than decades of steady, hard-nosed containment, had defeated the Soviets. (Part of this was done by systematically ignoring Ronald Reagan's actual behavior in office and selectively focusing on nuances of his rhetorical positions.) And in the process, they forgot that the policies they recommended were never actually meant to be adopted.

This led to disaster after September 11, when George W. Bush's administration embraced neoconservatives' for-opposition-purposes-only approach as the basis for actual policies. Why slowly squeeze an adversary into submission, at minimal risk to yourself, when you could roll the dice on an invasion. The second Iraq War is an illustration of pure neoconservative dysfunction: a disdain for low-cost containment policies, premature abandonment of other policy tools (for example, pulling out the U.N.'s nuclear arms inspectors), and a reflexive preference for risky military action. The entire war was fought, on one level, in the service of a counter-factual claim. Neoconservatives had spent the previous decade carping that George H. W. Bush "should have" conquered the entirety of Iraq in 1991, and rhapsodizing about how well that would have gone. They got away with it for ten years because their claims were immune from any test in reality. By 2003, they had persuaded themselves so thoroughly that they attempted to prove themselves right in the real world. The results should have discredited neoconservatism for a generation, but the neoconservatives themselves have not been deterred.

Romney has no actual foreign policy background, but his advisers and campaign rhetoric all come straight from the anti-realist tradition. His senior foreign policy adviser is one of the most hopelessly unrealistic members of Bush II's Iraq team, Dan Senor. (Taking advice from Dan Senor is an admission of hopeless idiocy, because even a stopped clock is right more often than Dan Senor.)
This is why Romney talks about things like giving up on a two-state solution for Israel and why Romney is likely to declare tonight that we should refuse Iran's offer to negotiate over their weapons program. The neoconservative tradition sees negotiations as a sign of weakness, or even as treasonous: talking with the nation's enemies! The realist tradition sees negotiations as a tool to achieve our national ends: if you never negotiate with your adversaries, they have no way to give in to your demands. Negotiations aren't the primary foreign-policy tool, but they are the forum in which you reap the gains that the rest of your tools have brought you. You apply pressure to the nation's enemies so that they capitulate at the negotiating table later on. It beats attempting to occupy all of our international opponents by force at the same time.

Romney's anti-realist stance also explains why he sets such disproportionate store by questions of rhetoric, obsessing over whether or not Obama said "act of terror." The whole point of neoconservative foreign policy is to sound tougher than someone else. Using threatening phrases like "act of terror" or "axis of evil" is treated as the most important thing, much more important than actual results. This is also why Republicans (including John McCain, who should know better) have taken to complaining that any of Obama's military actions should be even more forceful,  even carping that Obama should have sent ground troops to Libya. That's neoconservatism in a nutshell: what works is beside the point. You should do the "tougher" thing even though it involves paying a higher price for (at best) the same results. And these are the people Mitt Romney listens to.

Barack Obama has a foreign policy that works. Mitt Romney is going to try to differentiate himself from that workable policy. That's really the whole story.

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